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More than 250 Chicago school employees tested positive for COVID-19 since March, new data show

A food service worker assembles lunch bags. Stacey Rupolo/Chalkbeat

At least 258 school district employees have tested positive for COVID-19 since March and eight have died — but it’s not clear how many of the cases stemmed from work on campuses.

Chicago’s teachers union released the numbers publicly Wednesday as part of an ongoing dispute with district leadership over which employees should return to buildings and when. According to the union, nearly half of the cases — 123 — were “actionable,” which means that they required the district to take some sort of operational pause or halt activity at the school. The numbers reflected cases reported through Sept. 9.

In a statement, district spokeswoman Emily Bolton said workplace transmission was unlikely to have caused most of the infections seen in district employees or contractors.

“Nothing is more important than the well-being of employees, and the district has been working closely with city leaders and health officials to monitor the progression of the virus,” Bolton said.

Even though Chicago schools are closed to in-person learning, hundreds of schools are open for meals and device distribution.

The union filed a grievance in August over the school district’s decision to ask clerks to return to work inside buildings. Last week, the Illinois Labor Relations Board denied the union’s request for an injunction that would have kept clerks from coming into school. But an arbitration hearing this week will consider whether another aspect of the union’s complaint — that the district didn’t bargain appropriately over clerks’ working conditions — is valid.

Chicago started the school year virtually, but the mayor and schools chief have said they hope to move toward a partial reopening in November if health officials deem it safe. How COVID-19 infection rates impact school staff will be closely watched. In the meantime, Chicago also opened six supervisory sites at campuses to help families in need of child care options, a program it plans to expand later this month.

As school buildings reopen downstate and in other parts of the country, public health experts — as well as educators and parents — are closely watching to see if COVID-19 case counts rise. Illinois has begun publicly tracking cases in youth under age 20 through the Illinois Department of Public Health. The data lags by a few weeks, but a spokeswoman said that case counts rose in August, a month when many school districts and some college campuses reopened. The age group with the largest spike: 20-29 year olds.

As of Monday, nearly two-thirds of the state’s school-aged children had started the school year virtually. Slightly more than a third were attending classes in school buildings or enrolled in a hybrid plan with some in-person learning.

Samantha Smylie contributed reporting

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